Any major league player, in any sport, is a master of the fundamentals. A baseball player looking to break into The Bigs should be able to hit, to field, and pitch if need be; without these fundamentals, without having these things down to a reflex, to a muscle twitch, they don’t have a chance at being a professional. MLB2k9 definitely won’t make it to the MLB, in fact it’s more like the drunken middle-aged men playing sandlot games; hitting isn’t as delicate as it claims to be and gives up a lot more home runs than it probably should, pitches end up in the dirt with a surprising frequency, and your fielders frequently not only miss the ball but find themselves behind it. Watching grown men live out their childhood dreams in their imaginations might be a little sad, and often a little frustrating, but that doesn’t they’re not enjoying themselves.
2k Sports, it must be said, is trying really hard to progress the genre. As the sole official third-party developer of MLB games until 2012, they’re the torch-bearers for mainstream baseball games, and their task is to innovate ways to throw a ball and swing a bat. Conceptually, they’re on the right track; to pitch, you make a very familiar Ryu-Fireball-type motion to throw a 2-seam fastball, a half-circle from the 9 through 3 o’ clock position to throw a change-up, etc. This is a very natural system and it should be completely effective, but like so much in MLB2k9 it’s undone by the execution. Every time I pitched a 2-seam fastball, no matter where it was aimed, it ended up in the dirt and called for a ball. Every time. For such an innovative, comfortable system that clearly shows some thought and polish, it’s absolutely frustrating for it to be so clearly broken.
On the other side of the mound, hitting seems almost too easy. The game is clearly engineered to favor the home run, which makes for more exciting games I suppose, but it also takes all the fun and excitement out of hitting one. Playing a game with my friend, he racked up about 20 in one game. Poor pitching by me, maybe; the fact that I could do it consistently in any game I played, that just makes it look like manipulation of the hitting mechanic.
By far the most broken and buggy component of the game is also one of the most crucial: fielding and base-running. I’ve had both a ball and left-fielder run straight through Boston’s famed Green Monster (for the un-initiated, that’s a giant wall in left field) and into the ether. I’ve had a computer-controlled base runner go right past second base, all the way into the stands. My shortstops don’t dive to make catches, though the computer players can. And it’s not a question of me not hitting a button fast enough: by the time the camera transitions from the pitcher to the field, the ball’s already gone by. Then again, in nearly any situation with a hit ball, the ball’s already gone by: the AI automatically selects the player closest to the ball when it transitions the camera from behind the pitcher to the field after a hit, but most often it selects the player behind the ball, while the outfielder who’s actually closest just stands there and makes no effort to get the ball. In this game, anything to do with the field is a near-disaster.
I say near because this game is pretty, and the character animations, the ones that work, are eerie. I spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time watching baseball during the season, and I’m more well-versed with what players from my favorite team do before, during, and after a pitch or a swing then I probably should. With all that said, this game is dead-on with their pitching and hitting animations. The players all look and behave as they would during a real game; Youkilis’ funny little shimmy and odd batting grip are completely intact. That said, the animations that aren’t tuned specifically to a player, such as those used in the defensive view, can end up not specifically broken but hilariously broken. You know that Wile E. Coyote bit where his legs are moving really fast as he tries to run but he doesn’t go anywhere? I had a Tampa Bay Rays player doing that on third base, and while it was entertaining, it was just another way in which the game lacked polish.
The stadiums are well-detailed, and if you’re a frequenter of any of them you should feel right at home. There are also several sound-settings that I enjoyed playing with, including an “on the field” mode that really brought the in-the-game feel home. Another neat feature that may or may not be a first for the series (I researched but couldn’t get a definitive answer) is the roster updates that keep your teams up to date with the real teams’ injuries, trades, and minor-league-call-ups throughout the 2009 season. I think it’s creative and interesting, but as this is March I’m not sure how that will play out during the actual season; for example, if you’re playing a season starting this month and Clay Buchholz gets injured and is out for the season in your game, then the actual season starts in April, does Buchholz come back? It’ll be interesting to see how those issues play out. I also give 2k some kudos for making the TV announcers not only not annoying, but far less repetitive.
Where the game does shine is head-to-head multiplayer. The fielding is still obnoxiously broken, but the hitting and the pitching make for fun competition. The hitting is heavily favored in that battle, but at least it’s heavily favored on both sides.
MLB2k9 looks good but is poorly executed. Quality issues and bugs abound, and pretty visuals and some neat features just aren’t enough to save the game.